New Bedford, Massachusetts once held a burn dump containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The EPA now designates the area as a Superfund site.
The U.S. banned PCBs in 1979, but the chemicals have a long half life. PCBs still accumulate in food chains today, and most Americans currently have detectable levels of PCBs in their blood.
Researchers from Harvard University, Boston University and two other schools collected umbilical cord blood from 788 babies born near New Bedford Harbor, to measure exposure to PCBs during gestation. Eight years later, 600 of those children took part in attention and impulse-control tests.
Boys who had higher levels of PCB exposure during pregnancy performed worse on the attention and impulse-control tests. The researchers didn't find such a correlation in girls; girls with higher PCBs exposure actually showed better reaction times on one test.
The authors concluded their study with a call for further investigations into the sex-specific effects of PCBs on behavior.
In the 1980's in the Great Lakes region, another area with high PCB levels, researchers first linked PCBs to neurological difficulties. Children whose mothers ate contaminated fish performed worse than their peers on tests on memory and IQ. Scientists also associate PCBs with skin damage, liver problems, fatigue, headaches and cough.
[Environmental Health News via Scientific American]
Photo: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection/Flickr